When I went to see Jiří Hájíček talk about his novel Rustic Baroque (Selský baroko) at Prague’s American Center in mid-January he made an obvious but still very interesting point about what distinguishes the English-language translation of the book from the other translations that have come out so far. He said that not only for Czech readers, but for the readers of the Hungarian, Croatian and if I remember correctly, Polish, versions, the tragic history of the communist land collectivization the novel depicts is something that would be familiar, whereas for readers from the US and UK these would be events entirely outside their collective experience and that this would make it exotic for them in a way it wouldn’t be for readers from former communist countries.
I have always been highly allergic to the guidebook-like notion that it might be a good idea to read international literature as a way of learning about or “visiting” a particular country. As if you might read a novel like Bolaño’s 2666in lieu of a trip to Mexico, after which you can return from the experience to present your friends figurative slide shows of the warped, demented images you have brought back with you along with raves about the delicious food. And yet there really is something tangible that reading from different places and times provides, and it is of far more than documentary interest, let alone a matter of novelty or edification.